Presidential Perspective

As the race to the White House enters uncharted territory, Montana's top political minds weigh in on the outlandish campaign for the presidency

By Tristan Scott

Two years ago, riding a riptide of disillusioned liberals, Brian Schweitzer emerged as a colorful and dynamic challenge to the establishment of both political parties and speculation erupted about a 2016 White House run featuring the former Democratic governor of Montana.

By May, a Wall Street Journal profile had solidified Schweitzer’s status as the Democrats’ anti-Hillary Clinton – a populist challenger on the rise, a straight-talking maverick whose dusty cowpoke motif of boots, brisket and bolo ties captivated a nation disenchanted with the status quo and yearning for a Washington outsider with executive experience.

It helped that, after finishing his second term as governor, Schweitzer became one of the only prominent Democrats willing to speak critically about Clinton, earning him appearances on a suite of cable news shows, and a lofty platform as a paid contributor with MSNBC, dispatching broadcasts from a home studio cobbled together in his wine cellar on Georgetown Lake.

In the end, Schweitzer’s fondness of straight-talk and off-the-cuff remarks landed him in trouble when he insulted Sen. Dianne Feinstein and joked that Majority Leader Eric Cantor was gay in a National Journal profile.

The public-relations gaffe prompted the former governor to come crashing down from his soaring political pirouette, and the Brian Schweitzer experiment was abandoned with the same urgency as it had been gushingly adopted. But the same political acrobatics that enabled Schweitzer’s dramatic rise on the national radar have returned, figuring prominently in the 2016 presidential race, and pitting the GOP’s unrestrained scrum of political theater and name-calling against the Democrats’ enthusiasm deficit.

And in a race that favors a political outsider like billionaire business mogul Donald Trump as the probable GOP nominee and a Washington insider like Clinton as the Democrats’ presumptive choice, it begs the question – Does Schweitzer wish he was in the mix?

If Schweitzer was the anti-Hillary Clinton, then he’s the political doppelganger to Donald Trump, but the former Whitefish farmer said he’s not interested in a run for the White House.

“Absolutely not,” Schweitzer said. “I am very careful now and have been for the last year. Every time my phone rings and I don’t recognize the number, I don’t answer and I don’t call back. Because invariably it is somebody trying to get me to run for president, and I’m not interested. My email inbox blows up with the same requests. Not interested.”

While other Democrats have been quick to line up behind Clinton as the party nominee, Schweitzer has repeatedly raised concerns about her ties to Wall Street, as well as her vote to authorize military force in Iraq — a decision that became the flashpoint in her drawn out 2008 primary against Barack Obama.

Early on, Schweitzer endorsed Martin O’ Malley, even serving as co-chair of the former Maryland governor’s campaign. As Democratic governors, Schweitzer said the two men worked together closely, and he saw firsthand how “he didn’t just talk about his progressive values, he actually put them into action.”

“Here is a candidate who is measured in what he says, he is a student in all things political, economical, historical, a candidate who would be able to describe to you in detail every piece of public policy enacted in the last 50 years,” Schweitzer said. “This is a good, decent, intelligent man, and he didn’t even get to first base.”

O’Malley’s statesmanship stands out in contrast to Trump’s flair for all things bombastic, and yet Trump maintains a commanding lead in national Republican polls in part because of his unconventional campaign tactics, which center on large rallies and galling statements that generate constant media buzz and do little to knock him off his axis.

As some establishment Republicans outline a strategy to deny Trump of the 1,237 delegates required to clinch the nomination before the Republican National Convention in Cleveland in July, and Democrats envision a dream scenario in which a Trump nomination prompts the GOP to lose the White House and the Senate and put a dent in the party’s House majority, Schweitzer said Trump’s viability in the general election should not be discounted.

Former Gov. Brian Schweitzer. Beacon File Photo
Former Gov. Brian Schweitzer. Beacon File Photo

“The Democrats who believe that are smoking their own belly button lint,” Schweitzer said. “Trump is going to be very viable. He is able to say ‘I am not like the rest of them’ and he is able to say that because he doesn’t take their money. Democrats underestimate Trump at their own peril.”

When he ran for governor, Schweitzer refused special interest and PAC money for his campaign, and his folksy and honest persona would surely engage the same base of voters who cite Trump’s status as a nonpolitician as the reason for their adoration.

Robert Saldin, who teaches political science at the University of Montana, said the Trump campaign phenomenon shares plenty of characteristics with the short-lived ascendancy of Schweitzer’s (speculative) presidential bid.

“The Schweitzer thing has huge parallels with the Trump movement,” Saldin said. “You have these shtick-y outsider elements, these strong-man personas, the bravado, the upending of typical norms and conventions about how things are done in the political world. There are some real parallels.”

Still, Saldin acknowledged that trying to predict whether Trump is going to self-destruct or be derailed between now and the Republican National Convention is a fool’s errand, particularly as every political pundit expected the nation to reach peak Trump last summer.

“We keep expecting that it will blow up. But I don’t think it will before he gets the nomination. I don’t see any way he doesn’t get the nomination short of the party trying to take it away from him at the convention,” Saldin said.

Former Republican Congressman Rick Hill, who was the GOP candidate for governor of Montana in 2012, has become a vocal critic of Trump and said his rise gives him deep concerns about the state of the Republican Party.

Prior to U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio dropping out of the race, Hill endorsed the Florida Republican, but he’s now throwing his support behind U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, although Hill said he would also consider supporting Ohio Gov. John Kasich, with whom Hill served alongside in Congress.

Any Republican is better than Trump, he said.

“I don’t think Trump can win, and if he did win it would not be good for Republicans, or for the Constitution, and I don’t see anything good that he would bring to Montana or the country,” Hill said. “He would only bring detriment and dysfunction. And we have other strong candidates. It is just infuriating.”

Former Congressman Rick Hill. Beacon File Photo
Former Congressman Rick Hill. Beacon File Photo

It’s not merely elected officials who are increasingly flummoxed by the outlandish developments coloring the 2016 election.

Political consultant and strategist Barrett Kaiser, a University of Montana graduate who divides his time between Washington, D.C., and Billings, has two decades of political experience. He helped former Democratic U.S. Sen. Max Baucus win reelection campaigns in 2002 and 2008, and in 2012 organized an unprecedented independent expenditure campaign for Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, whose successful bid was characterized by deploying cutting-edge social media outreach. Prior to that, Kaiser cut his teeth in politics working under Jim Messina, the architect of reelection campaigns for President Barack Obama in 2012 and British Prime Minister David Cameron in 2015.

But traditional campaign tactics have been turned on their ear, and Kaiser said Trump’s durability has touched a paralyzing nerve in establishment political thinking.

“There is just no playbook for this in Montana or nationally. Not even the old-timers have ever dealt with this dynamic,” Kaiser said. “I think you would need an advanced degree in mathematics and a crystal ball to accurately portray what is going to happen. It’s as if this election is for the Mayor of Crazy Town. It’s straight out of the Twilight Zone.”

Saldin said that while a Trump nomination is probable, the intense level of unease among high-level Republicans could lead to support for an independent candidate, or even blanket pledges to abandon Trump and the GOP.

“There seems to be a wide swath and possibly even a majority of Republican primary voters at the elite level who are in open revolt, and they have clearly decided that they will not be able to support Trump under any circumstances. And if that means that Hillary Clinton becomes the next president, well, that is the tradeoff,” Saldin said.

Saldin also questioned the wisdom of Democrats betting with confidence that a Trump-Clinton contest would go to the latter given the many unknown elements that could become a factor between now and November.

“Once you get down to two candidates, anything can happen. It is risky to cheer for someone because you think they are unelectable,” Saldin said. “Stranger things have happened so it is a risky scenario, and so many of our assumptions and what we thought we knew about how these things play out have been upended. I’m hesitant to say with any confidence how things will shake out. We are in uncharted territory, and all of the assumptions so far have proven to be wrong.”

Kaiser said the very fact that voters are gravitating toward Trump under the belief that he is a viable candidate for the president of the United States evinces a deeper problem with the nation’s confidence in its political system.

“It is very clear that the American electorate is in a bad mood, and they are crying out for candidates that don’t fit a traditional mold,” Kaiser said. “And whether it is what we are seeing with Bernie (Sanders) or with Trump, when you have docile candidates like (Jeb) Bush and O’Malley and Kasich who are not even able to get traction I think it is a testament to the level of dysfunction in American politics.”

Erik Iverson is a seasoned political professional and former chairman of the Montana Republican Party who has managed several statewide campaigns, including two U.S. Senate races. He also served as chief of staff to Montana’s former Republican U.S. House Rep. Denny Rehberg.

Recently, the consulting firm Iverson works for conducted polling for Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and he witnessed firsthand how the turbulent wake of Trump’s jet wash knocked out Bush as a contender in the GOP race.

“It’s obviously been a very different type of presidential election cycle than any we have seen in the recent past, but the campaign fundamentals are the same. The candidates need to understand what is motivating the electorate, and to Donald Trump’s credit he has been able to use his media savvy to capitalize on an electorate that is pretty frustrated with the way that things are going in Washington, D.C.,” Iverson said.

While it’s unclear what kind of influence a Trump nomination will come to bear on down-ticket races nationally, Iverson said Montana voters are notorious ticket-splitters with political proclivities that assess candidates on an individual basis.

He noted some parallels between Trump’s candidacy and that of the Republican gubernatorial frontrunner in Montana, Greg Gianforte.

“In Greg Gianforte you have a political newcomer and a successful businessman who like Trump is rejecting lobbyist and PAC money, and those are some of the things that we found serve as the biggest appeal for Trump,” he said. “But I don’t think in a place like Montana a Trump nomination is going to help or hurt the Republican Party because voters tend to size up candidates on a case-by-case basis.”

For his part, Schweitzer is still undecided about who he will support as president, and he hasn’t softened his opinion on Clinton, or on Obama, or on the Washington quagmire that is so heavily influenced by Wall Street.

“I don’t want to be in Washington, D.C., because the ones who actually run Washington, D.C. aren’t the leaders we vote for. I call them the ‘Be Team,’ because they’ll be there when you come and they’ll be there when you go. They are lobbyists and former staffers and consultants and strategists, and they are so burrowed into the roots of corporate America that when they start beating the drum, elected officials without a backbone fall right in line,” Schweitzer said. “I want leaders that will do the right thing even if in that particular moment in time it is not the popular thing. I want that leader.”

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